Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Just Jennifer

Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom by Sara Benincasa (William Morrow, February 2012)

Comedian, blogger and writer Sara Benincasa (who grew up in Flemington) also suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and agoraphobia from the time she was in high school. While in Boston at Emerson College, she sinks to the depths of depression and her illness, afraid of everything from riding in a car to using the bathroom. Her parents brought her back to New Jersey where she began the slow process of learning to live with and manage her illnesses. Along the way she spends time in an Ashville (NC) rehab center, time at a spiritual healing house outside of New Hope, PA, teaches in a Texas school for the arts, and learns not to take things so seriously and that it is okay to laugh at yourself. Bold, brash, at times completely uncensored but always honest, Sara learns she is not alone in her feelings or in her fight to survive and will remind us that we are not alone. Living in Manhattan, Sara is offered a chance to try being a stand-up comedian and finds comedy a good outlet for her anxieties and fears and a useful tool in dealing with them. Sara’s journey from agoraphobic to fabulous isdisturbing, funny and familiar, all at once.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

New This Week

Defending Jacob by William Landay (Delacorte)

His happy life and long-time respectability as a suburban Massachusetts assistant district attorney shattered when his 14-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student, Andy Barber faces a wrenching decision about family loyalty when the facts increasingly suggest that the boy is guilty.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s)

From a distance, Michael and Joleen Zarkades seem to have it all: a solid marriage, two exciting careers, and children they adore. But after twelve years together, the couple has lost their way; they are unhappy and edging toward divorce. Then the Iraq war starts. An unexpected deployment will tear their already fragile family apart, sending one of them deep into harm's way and leaving the other at home, waiting for news. When the worst happens, each must face their darkest fear and fight for the future of their family.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Knopf)

An intensely suspenseful thriller set at the nexus of high finance and sophisticated computer programming--a searing glimpse into an all-too-recognizable world of greed and fear, a novel that forces readers to confront the deepest questions about what it means to be human.

No One is Hear Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel (Riverhead)

In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years- across oceans, deserts, and mountains-but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator-the girl, grown into a young mother-must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Just Jennifer

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin’s Press, February 2012)

Jason Prosper has left his prep school with one year left and is going to finish out his high school career at Bellingham Prep in Massachusetts, the school of last resort for many damaged teens. Jason is mourning the loss of his best friend and sailing partner Cal. Once on campus, Jason meets Race, against whom he and Cal once sailed, and nearly causes Race to drown their first time out on the water. Laying low and hoping to get out of Bellingham alive and with a diploma, Jason strikes up a tentative and unusual relationship with Aidan, a girl who is very damaged, leaving her last school, if rumors are to be believed, for attacking the female art teacher with whom she was having a relationship when the woman broke it off. Together, the two navigate their senior year until a tragedy occurs that makes Jason take a look at everything he thought he knew, things he doesn’t want to see and things he must face if he ever hopes to heal and move on with his life.

An insightful first novel taking a look into life at a privileged prep school, A Starboard Sea should easily stand the test of time and take its place with similar novels, such as A Separate Peace. There are many metaphors, and clich├ęs, about the sea and wind that come quickly to mind, but Amber Dermont has managed to avoid them, instead creating a story whose gentle pull and angst and trouble underneath mimic the ebb and flow of the tide and the dangerous currents just below the surface. With a great deal of insight she explores the relationships of the students to each other, to their teachers at school and to their families. As the water takes life, so does it infuse Jason with life and the will to continue, even in the face of absence and great loss.

Just Jennifer

Leela’s Book by Alice Albinia (W.W. Norton, January 2012)

Leela immigrated to America over twenty years ago with her husband and the agreement between the two that she would never return to her native Delhi. Now, she finds herself returning to her homeland as she and her husband Hari prepare for his niece’s wedding to the son of Sanskrit scholar Vyasa, a man who, unbeknownst to Hari, is the husband of Leela’s late sister and part of the puzzle that is the reason that Leela refuses to return to India. Leela’s arrival surprises everyone and knocks everything out of kilter as a poem purported to be that of her late sister, discovered two decades after her death, surfaces, causing great debate among scholars, as the bride’s sister who has been exiled from the family for marrying a Muslim, faces the consequences of her choice; Ash, the groom, is coveting a secret of his own that also has a strange familial twist, and Hari prepares to bring his brother’s son Ram into his business as his heir. Soon everything in Leela’s carefully constructed life begins to fall apart, along with the lives of her family, in-laws and their new families. Facing her past head on, Leela realizes is the only way to cure a broken heart and begin to forgive so she can live life in the present.

Leela’s Book is a lyrical family saga, overseen, and perhaps orchestrated by Ganesh, the elephant-headed scribe of the Mahabhrata. Ganesh, turning human and playing a part in the drama narrates the story from his point of view, describing how he is controlling the events. He is, according to his narrative, the only person who will be able to save Leela from Vyasa from whom she has been running for over twenty years and whom she blames for all that is not right with her life, but who she comes to realize, only has the power over her she allows him to have. Mystical and romantic, Leela and Hari’s family will resonate with readers and stay with them past the final page.

Friday, January 20, 2012

New This Week

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Cannot Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown)

Susan Cain demonstrates how introverted people are misunderstood and undervalued in modern culture, charting the rise of extrovert ideology while sharing anecdotal examples of how to use introvert talents to adapt to various situations. 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (Harper)

Overcoming a life of hardship and loneliness, Gemma Hardy, a brilliant and determined young woman, accepts a position as an au pair on the remote Orkney Islands where she faces her biggest challenge yet.  

Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer (Ballantine)

Inadvertently attracting several single women while mourning the death of his adored wife, 62-year-old Edward Schuyler is profiled in a singles ad by his stepchildren and goes on several unsettling dates before a chance encounter leads to a promising new relationship.   

Heft by Liz Moore (W.W. Norton)

Former academic Arthur Opp weighs 550 pounds and hasn't left his rambling Brooklyn home in a decade. Twenty miles away, in Yonkers, seventeen-year-old Kel Keller navigates life as the poor kid in a rich school and pins his hopes on what seems like a promising baseball career-if he can untangle himself from his family drama. The link between this unlikely pair is Kel's mother, Charlene, a former student of Arthur's. After nearly two decades of silence, it is Charlene's unexpected phone call to Arthur-a plea for help-that jostles them into action. Through Arthur and Kel's own quirky and lovable voices, Heft tells the winning story of two improbable heroes whose sudden connection transforms both their lives.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Look of Love by Mary Jane Clark (William Morrow, January 2012)

Piper Donovan, aspiring actress, has moved home to New Jersey after her broken engagement and lack of long-term jobs left her in a precarious housing situation. Her mother, owner of Icing on the Cake bakery, has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, and Piper has been helping out, learning she has a flair for designing and decorating wedding cakes. Her first creation for a soap opera star was on the Internet so much that it has come to the attention of Jillian Abernathy, director of upscale Hollywood spa and “rejuvenation” center, Elysium who is to be married and wants Piper to design and make her wedding cake out in California. Thrilled at a chance to be on the west coast again, even if only for a week, Piper jumps at the chance; it will also give her time away from hunky FBI agent Jack who wants to take their relationship to the next level, though Piper is skittish after her recently failed relationship. Jillian’s maid Esperanza has acid thrown in her face; acid most likely meant for Jillian, postpones and scales back the wedding. When Piper arrives at Elysium, she learns it is not a place of rest for everyone, that Jillian’s father Dr. Abernathy may not be quite the skilled plastic surgeon he is purported to be and that someone is either trying to stop Jillian from walking down the aisle, ruin the reputation of Elysium or both.

The Look of Love is a well-paced mystery that is a bit more sophisticated than the average themed cozy; short chapters told from many points of view offer many suspects with many motives. Piper is an enthusiastic young woman who is sympathetic and clever, making people trust her so she is able to learn many things that help her to solve who is trying to hurt Jillian. A quick, enjoyable read, Piper will quickly win over many fans.

Just Jennifer

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar (Little Brown, January 2012)

Hayat Shah is a Pakistani Muslim growing up in Wisconsin in the late 1970’s. Up until his pre-teen years, his religion, that his family does not practice regularly, hasn’t been a big deal. When his mother’s best friend Mina, whose husband has just divorced her, comes to live with the Shahs with her young son, new worlds are opened up to Hayat, first love, a more scholarly approach to the Quran and his religion, stirrings of his sexuality and learning about his family, his parents and their relationships with each other. Hayat becomes very close to Mina, but America begins to work its magic on Mina, and she begins to drift away from him, creating her own life. Things begin to spiral out of control for Mina and Hayat sees everything he once held dear falling apart and soon realizes an act he committed out of jealousy was the impetus for these events, events that will change everything for everyone, but for none more than his beloved Mina

American Dervish, set prior to September 11, is a wonderfully complex coming-of-age story. It gracefully weaves in the religious journey of a young, Muslim-American boy and those around him. Hayat learns kindness and tolerance in unusually places and sees the religion he has come to worship and adore be used as the root of hatred and intolerance. Even in his struggle, Hayat will be a much loved character who will stay with readers long after the final chapter. The novel has the intimate feel of a memoir and will strike a chord with most readers as they find something familiar in Hayat’s struggle to become a man.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Just Jennifer

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson (William Morrow, January 2012)

With the feel of a novel by Lisa See, All the Flowers in Shanghai, tells the story of 17-year-old Xiao Feng who mostly doesn’t mind be in the shadow of her older sister whom her mother is grooming to marry into a good family. When Feng is forced to marry the man chosen for her sister, she finds herself thrust into a world with which she is entirely unfamiliar and unprepared. Taken away from her family and her beloved grandfather with whom Feng would spend hours walking in the public gardens, Feng quickly learns that the only way to live through what she considers the ordeal of her new family, is to harden herself and become powerful and controlling. Her first act is to give away her newborn daughter to a poor family rather than subjecting her to the same life in the future, a rash decision she grows to regret and one that colors and influences the rest of her days.

Told from a woman’s point of view, written by a man, All the Flowers of Shanghai lacks and intimacy and subtleness of Feng that might make her a more empathetic character. The change in her personality, while entirely understandable, comes about so quickly it feels forced. There is much detail written about the social strata in pre-World War II China giving the plot a very authentic feel. The gardens Feng spends time in with her grandfather and the descriptions of the flora are lovely and provided a metaphor to Feng’s life as she slowly withers away. Definitely worth a look for fans of historical novels, especially those set in exotic locations.

Just Jennifer

The Darlings by Cristina Alger (Pamela Dorman Books, February 2012)

It is the week before Thanksgiving and the Darlings are preparing to go out to the east end of Long Island for their annual Thanksgiving celebration. Work at Carter’s firm, Delphic, is wrapping up when news of the suicide of longtime family friend and the firm’s most successful funds manager reaches the family as does word of an SEC investigation targeting Mary’s hedge funds. Carter’s daughter Merrill is an accomplished attorney on her own; when her husband loses his job, he cautiously takes a job with his father-in-law’s firm and now finds himself thrown to the wolves to save the rest of the Darling’s and their empire. Many different pieces of the story, told from Delphic’s secretary to the SEC investigators to the investigative reporters working on the story, begin to emerge and readers get the feeling there is more going on than meets the eye. Even if they are able to guess how the book will end (and they will be partly correct), there is one final scene that may not surprise at first, but an “aha” moment will shortly follow.

The Darlings explores many layers of life and relationships, personal and professional in a very subtle way. Cristina Alger writes with the assuredness of a seasoned author and an elegance not often found in a first novel. The plot moves forward as Tuesday through Sunday of Thanksgiving week unfold hour by hour, quickly shifting characters, revealing their part in the plot, creating a very complex story. Even the most flawed and seemingly unappealing characters, among them Merrill’s brother-in-law, are written in such a way that we understand why they are the way they are even if we don’t like them. A compulsive read, perhaps a little long on the financial jargon and details, written with the feel of an insider’s eye.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New This Week

The Odds by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

In the new novel from the author of Last Night at the Lobster, a middle-age couple goes all in for love at a Niagara Falls casino. Valentine's weekend, Art and Marion Fowler flee their Cleveland suburb for Niagara Falls, desperate to recoup their losses. Jobless, with their home approaching foreclosure and their marriage on the brink of collapse, Art and Marion liquidate their savings account and book a bridal suite at the Falls' ritziest casino for a second honeymoon. While they sightsee like tourists during the day, at night they risk it all at the roulette wheel to fix their finances-and save their marriage. A tender yet honest exploration of faith, forgiveness and last chances, The Odds is a reminder that love, like life, is always a gamble.

Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell (Harper Collins)

The story of Saxon claimants to the throne during the forming of England at the end of the ninth century continues as Alfred the Great lays dying and the fate of the Angles, Saxons, and Vikings hangs in the balance.

Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card (Tor)

Bean moves with three of his children into a derelict space colony ship where they hope for a cure to engineered genes that give them high intelligence and short lives, a situation that is complicated when space-time distortions cause them to be forgotten by humanity.

The Rope by Nevada Barr (Minotaur)

In The Rope, Nevada Barr gathers together the many strings of Anna Pigeon's past and finally reveals the story that her many fans have been long asking for. In 1995 and 35 years old, fresh off the bus from New York City and nursing a broken heart, Anna takes a decidedly unglamorous job as a seasonal employee of the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. On her day off, Anna goes hiking into the park never to return. Her co-workers think she's simply moved on--her cabin is cleaned out and her things gone. But Anna herself wakes up, trapped at the bottom of a dry natural well, naked, without supplies and no clear memory of how she found herself in this situation. As she slowly pieces together her memory, it soon becomes clear that some one has trapped her there, in an inescapable prison, and no one knows that she is even missing. Plunged into a landscape and a plot she is unfit and untrained to handle, Anna Pigeon must muster the courage, determination and will to live that she didn't even know she still possessed to survive, outwit and triumph. This is where it all began.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Just Jennifer

The Starlite Drive-In by Marjorie Reynolds (William Morrow, November 2011)

In this 1950’s coming of age story, told in retrospect, Callie Anne Benton recalls the summer thirty-six years earlier, she was twelve, living at the Starlite Drive-In near Jessup, Indiana when Charlie Memphis, a drifter, came into their lives and changed everything for Callie and her mother Teal. Bones have been found on the theater property in present day; from the items found with the bones, Callie surmises that they belong to Charlie Memphis, a handyman who was hired to help out her father, Claude Junior, who manages the drive-in, but because of a bad leg is unable to do many of the maintenance tasks, one summer at the drive-in. Both twelve-year-old Callie and her mother Teal, housebound because of fear of going outside, fall in love with Charlie Memphis, and when Teal and Charlie Memphis begin to act on their mutual feelings, Callie experiences a range of emotions from anger to jealousy to feelings of self-doubt to shock when she realizes her mother is a woman other than Claude Junior’s wife and Callie’s mother. Claude Junior is abusive toward his wife and daughter, but is shocked when he realizes Teal, through her relationship with Charlie Memphis, has overcome many of her phobias and is able to confront his abusive ways. Callie begins a budding relationship with fifteen-year-old Virgil who works at the box office and rescues an injured turtle that becomes a metaphor for both Callie and her mother, though might have been more effective had it been introduced earlier.

The Starlite Drive-In, originally published in 1997, now reprinted, is a sweet, nostalgic coming of age story, though told through grown-up Callie’s eyes, is lacking in a certain amount of innocence & confusion twelve-year-old Callie must have felt. A local man Billy, who has returned from the war with what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress disorder, becomes an alternate possible victim whose bones have been found in present day, but Callie knows that the bones belong to Charlie Memphis. The present day mystery is wrapped up a little quickly, and had Teal’s reactions been explored more it would have only added to this well-written first novel.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New This Week

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House)

The son of an influential father who runs an orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il.

Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George (Dutton)

Going undercover to investigate the death of a drowning victim at the request of the man's wealthy and influential uncle, Inspector Thomas Lynley uncovers dark secrets in his client's family.

Copper Beach by Jayne Ann Krentz (Putnam)

Within the pages of very rare books some centuries old lie the secrets of the paranormal. Abby Radwell's unusual psychic talent has made her an expert in such volumes-and sometimes taken her into dangerous territory. After a deadly incident in the private library of an obsessive collector, Abby receives a blackmail threat, and rumors swirl that an old alchemical text known as The Key has reappeared on the black market. Convinced that she needs an investigator who can also play bodyguard, she hires Sam Coppersmith, a specialist in paranormal crystals and amber-"hot rocks." Passion flares immediately between them, but neither entirely trusts the other. When it comes to dealing with a killer who has paranormal abilities, and a blackmailer who will stop at nothing to obtain an ancient alchemical code, no one is safe.

Gideon’s Corpse by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child (Grand Central)

After a standoff between a top nuclear scientist from Los Alamos and an innocent hostage turns violent, Gideon Crew must track down a rogue nuclear device.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Just Jennifer

The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous and Obscure edited by Larry Smith (Harper Perennial, January 2012)

Everyone has that moment in their life that they can recall as life altering, be it good or bad. Larry Smith and the creators of Six-Word Memoirs have listened to people who wanted their story to be told beyond their allotted six words and have created a book of short vignettes of famous and not so famous people recalling their life changing moment. From the moment when best-selling author Diane Ackerman’s husband had a stroke and she thought their life together as she knew it was over (it was, but she never expected their new life could be just as good or better) to photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart’s “someday” when he and his wife would have their first child, the “someday” that came before he thought he was ready, but cannot now imagine being without. Some moments are a combination of drawings and text, others carefully planned out thoughts, others more stream of conscious, some public moments, some extremely personal, some followed by related six –word memoirs, each providing insight and offering us the chance to reflect on our Moment. The Moment should not be read cover to cover, but thumbed through, reading passages that speak to you at particular times, rereading some, skipping over others, finding surprises and secrets along the way.

Just Jennifer

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney (Putnam, January 2012)

Ray Lovell lies in hospital in England unable to move or recall specifics of his last few days. He can remember that he was hired by a Gypsy father to find his daughter, Rose Janko, nee Wood, who went missing almost seven years ago, shortly after her marriage to Ivo Janko, and the birth of her son Christo, and Leon fears her dead. Ray knows he has been hired because of his Gypsy heritage, and though he no longer likes to take missing persons cases, especially after the adult has been missing so long, feels duty bound to look in to the case, and a bit intrigued and agrees to look for Rose. Ray is not surprised with the suspicion he is greeted, but appeals to the Jankos as a fellow Gypsy and slowly a strange and surprising story begins to unfold, one that leads Ray into an unfamiliar world, to places he never thought he would go. Though Ray is half Romany, his mother was a gorjio (a non-Romany) his father lived a traditional life as a postman with his family in a house. Even so, he thinks he understands the ways of the travelers, but soon learns there is more to his heritage, such as a blood disease that many of the Janko males have had, including Christo who, at six, is brought to Lourdes seeking a cure that his father Ivo claims to have received twenty years ago. At odds with his present, not yet willing to sign his divorce papers, Ray faces his past and his roots while unraveling the mystery the Jankos have been keeping for many years. Penney’s prose will draw readers into the narrative while her plot will keep pages turning until the last page.

Just Jennifer

Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, January 2012)

There was a time when being shy or introverted was considered to be a social anxiety disorder and could be treated by a drug like Zoloft. While social anxiety disorders to exist and being treated by drugs such as that helps patients lead a normal life, preferring to be quiet or spend time alone is not necessarily a disorder and can sometimes lead to a life just as productive, or in cases, more so, than more extroverted companions. In her new book, Susan Cain, consultant, negation expert and presentation coach, explores the differences between shyness, introversion and social anxiety disorders. She explains how introverts and the way they think and operate differs from their more extroverted colleagues and offers ways to use these quieter tendencies to their advantage in many situations. She discusses nature versus nurture in the way we develop and how extroverts can use introverted characteristics in different situations to great effect. Very thoroughly researched with detailed notes, Cain also conducted many interviews and includes personal narratives from introverts who have learned to turn their way of acting and reacting in social situations to their advantage. Included is a short quiz to help you determine your introverted or extroverted tendencies. A very enjoyable read that offers much to consider.